We want to share our breakthrough in long Covid care as soon as possible - Allan Cowie

For many, the Covid pandemic is starting to feel like a page out of history.

As we get back to our normal lives, it is sometimes hard to imagine where we were just 18 months ago.

But, from hospitals to schools, and transport to leisure, the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt in every corner of our society.

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And for far too many, the virus has left an indelible mark on their lives – meaning they are simply unable to resume life as it was before 2020.

This month, the ONS revealed that 2million people in the UK – and some 150,000 people in Scotland – are suffering from Long Covid.

And around seven in 10 of those who reported having it say their lives have been significantly affected – with one in five saying their ability to undertake day-to-day activities has been "limited a lot”.

Symptoms – from extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pains to insomnia, heart palpitations and brain fog – are often so severe people have had to stop work and can no longer enjoy their daily lives and activities.

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Dr Amy Small, a GP from the Lothians, has Long Covid and has welcomed the new approach to patient care. PIC: Contributed.

Since the emergence of Long Covid two years ago, we have been campaigning alongside people living with Long Covid to ensure that systems are in place to help them easily access the care and support they desperately need.

There is no simple solution, especially when our NHS and frontline GPs are under such incredible pressure.

It is clear that – just as we pulled together at the height of the pandemic – so too now, we must work together to ensure these people get the treatment they need.

Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s (CHSS) partnership with NHS Lothian and Pogo Digital Healthcare is example of how organisations can join forces to cut through some of the barriers people are facing when it comes to getting treatment.

Greig Brown, 44, a joiner from West Lothian, contracted Covid-19 in January 2021 and has been hospitalised twice because of the condition. PIC: Contributed.

The digital pathway which we are piloting in 26 practices across Lothian enables GPs to refer people with Long Covid directly to our Long Covid Support Service for the first time via ‘Tailored Talks’ which enables people to access information relevant to their specific circumstances.

This new scheme will run parallel to a person’s ongoing clinical management under their GP or wider NHS system.

Jointly funded by NHS Lothian, the NHS Lothian Charity and CHSS, it helps patients deal with the most common Long Covid symptoms, such as breathlessness and fatigue, as well as offering advice on the impact on mental wellbeing.

The programme has been developed with clinicians and people with Long Covid, and we want it to be adopted right across the country as soon as possible.

It not only makes this process easier for people living with Long Covid, but it helps to alleviate some of the pressure that primary care is under by allowing clinicians to easily refer their patients into a service they can trust.

Only last week, the Royal College of Nursing warned that there simply aren’t enough specialist services to meet the rising number of people who need help with Long Covid.

We must do everything we can to prevent people who are ill from languishing on long waiting lists when there are ways we can help.

The new system gives patients direct access to support to help manage their condition without waiting to see health care specialists individually.

One GP we work with, Amy Small, who herself has Long Covid, has hailed the programme – saying one-to-one support and advice from experienced advisors who can provide more time with the patients than GPs can is a breakthrough for medical practitioners and patients.

We are grateful to the Scottish Government and our partners in the NHS for their support and ongoing funding for our Long Covid Support Service which is a critical element in this new way to tackle and emerging healthcare crisis.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has said he is looking forward to seeing the results.

It truly shows what we can achieve when we work together and apply co-operation, agile thinking and innovation to our most pressing issues.

In practice, the scheme works like this:

A GP identifies that the patient has Long Covid.

They then make referrals for appropriate NHS provided tests and treatments, but can now also refer the patient directly to CHSS’s Long Covid Support Service.

The patient is then invited to sign up to a patient portal (which also has an app) where they consent to their data being shared and answer a Long Covid self-assessment.

Depending on the answers they give, a pack of tailored patient information is automatically generated, and they are asked if they would like a call back from CHSS’s Long Covid Advice Line nurses.

Greig Brown from West Lothian is a Long Covid patient who is part of the pilot.

Once a keen runner and cyclist, Greig now lives with severe breathing difficulties and memory loss.

He has not been able to return to his job as a joiner, and he fears he will never regain the health and fitness he once had.

“I feel as if people like me have fallen through the cracks,” he said.

“I hope having a system in place like this NHS Lothian pilot that lets doctors refer patients directly to the CHSS support service can make a real difference to everyone living with Long Covid symptoms.”

That is what we hope to achieve.

And we believe the approach could also be applied to a whole range of long-term conditions, many of which place huge pressure on the NHS.

This system truly has the potential to transform access to wraparound care through GP services in Scotland.

Allan Cowie is Interim Chief Executive of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland. To access CHSS’s Long Covid Support Service, call 0808 801 0899 (free from landlines and mobiles), email [email protected], or text NURSE to 66777.